Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayevsky’s ‘Network’: The Grim Prophecy that Was Once Just Brilliant Satire

“Once it opened, everybody kept saying, 'Oh, what a brilliant satire.' But Paddy [Chayefsky, screenwriter] and I always said, 'This isn't satire, it's sheer reportage.' We were both brought up in television, so we knew what we were dealing with. But I've got to tell you—I don't think I've seen it in 20 years (I don't usually like to look at my work)—I'm stunned at how prescient it is. A lot of what was hilarious 25 years ago got no laughter tonight because it has all come true. So it hits you with a kind of impact that was not originally intended.” —Sidney Lumet. Production still photographer: Michael Ginsburg © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (A Howard Gottfried-Paddy Chayefsky Production), United Artists

By Sven Mikulec

What excited the general public and outraged horrified television moguls as a razor-sharp satire in 1976, a film promoted as outrageous, hasn’t lost its principal qualities over the years that went by, but in an interesting and a somewhat saddening way it sort of changed its genre. What were once caricatures of people, imperfect human shells who ruled the amoral world whose only god was profit and where ratings were seen as the only true measure of success and personal accomplishment, today seems almost as a documentary of the behind-the-camera world of television. When Paddy Chayevsky, one of the most successful TV writers of the Golden Age of television, started writing the script in the middle of the seventies, the drew his inspiration from his bitterness about the direction the medium to which he devoted many years of his career was taking, but his bitter words today don’t take us as humorous and uncompromising satire as much as a frightening and sobering prophecy. In a world where sensationalism gets you far more clicks than real journalism, where the media compete to publish gruesome footages of hostage executions or brutal car crashes, in a world where reality television rules the small screens lobotomizing the masses and tapping into the basic human voyeuristic impulses, Network can be called a whole lot of things… except outrageous. Joining forces with his close friend Sidney Lumet, a true filmmaking legend of the second half of the 20th century, Chayevsky crafted a film of undisputable quality which is, from today’s perspective, worth even more than back then, when it was honored with no less than ten Academy Award nominations. Masterfully shot and structured, carried on the shoulders of a great cast, with ingenious lighting from cinematographer Owen Roizman characterized by the way the film changes its visuality as the characters develop—the more the characters are unscrupulous and prone to sensationalism, the stronger the artificial lighting: “even the camera got corrupted,” as Lumet explained—and, for this director, typically minimal use of music, Network also showcases a great script that deserves to be studied at film schools around the world.

Even though it was thought that the tragic death of news reporter Christine Chubbuck, who committed suicide on air, served as a source of inspiration for Chayevsky when he developed the story for Network, it was later stated he started writing the screenplay before the incident took place in 1974, adding even more eeriness to the prophetic essence of the movie. Network would carve its name into film history books thanks to the Oscars ceremony, as it set a number of records and precedents that night: it became the second film ever to win three acting Oscars (the great Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway and Beatrice Straight), Peter Finch became the first actor to be awarded an Oscar posthumously (and is still the only one in the lead category), while Beatrice Straight won for an impressive but record-breaking five minutes on screen. But Network is too important a film to be evaluated in the light of such trivia. Aside from the dispiriting picture it painted about the world of television and journalism, what we found especially interesting is the character vigorously portrayed by the talented Faye Dunaway. Her Diana is a modern, emancipated, career-oriented, sexually free woman intoxicated by ambition and success who might have been seen as the embodiment of dehumanized evil and moral degradation, but now leaves the impression of a successful executive unburdened by chauvinism and misogyny of her surroundings, unconcerned by the predominantly male playing field she excels in without looking back over her shoulders. It’s a marvelously portrayed refreshing character which was, just like the rest of the movie, decades ahead of its time.

Once it opened, everybody kept saying, ‘Oh, what a brilliant satire.’ But Paddy and I always said, ‘This isn’t satire, it’s sheer reportage.’ We were both brought up in television, so we knew what we were dealing with. But I’ve got to tell you—I don’t think I’ve seen it in 20 years (I don’t usually like to look at my work)—I’m stunned at how prescient it is. A lot of what was hilarious 25 years ago got no laughter tonight because it has all come true. So it hits you with a kind of impact that was not originally intended. —Sidney Lumet

Even though Dunaway’s character is perhaps crucial for the movie, it’s Peter Finch’s performance that is still mostly remembered today, along with his immortal “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore” line. Finch did a perfect job, but as he had suffered from heart problems for years, he was utterly exhausted from making Network and passed away, only 60 years old, soon after seeing the completed film. Scored by Elliot Lawrence (The French Connection), edited by Alan Heim (All That Jazz, American History X), supplied with a plethora of strong supporting performances from the likes of Robert Duvall, Ned Beatty and Wesley Addy, Network is a splendid movie still as shocking as it was when it was released, only in a disturbingly different way.

A monumentally important screenplay. Dear every screenwriter/filmmaker, read Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay for Network [PDF1, PDF2]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

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The Chayefsky script, with its crisp jargon and its fast-flowing comedy, interrupted by those arias of self-revelation and moments of heart-stopping compassion that are this writer’s hallmark, is remarkably rich in itself, as well as in comparison to the aridity of most screenwriting. And it is an obvious joy to performers rarely given an opportunity to portray such articulate characters. Peter Finch’s Howard, whose restrained madness reaches heights of glittering sanity, sustains a peculiar dignity and a deeply moving pathos. William Holden’s Max, like many Chayefsky protagonists, is in the middle-of-the-night stage of his emotional life; unlike them, he is decisive and self-aware, the man of “simple human decency” who sees and escapes self-destruction. Most glittering is Faye Dunaway’s Diana, the woman of self-styled “masculine temperament,” a driven careerist existing only in her work, unable to feel, only to “handle,” emotion, her self-absorption total. She is indeed “television incarnate,” as Max calls her, detached from unscripted living. There are persuasive performances, too, by Robert Duvall as Hackett, the ultimate corporation man, the knife—and hacksaw—at the ready in every move; Ned Beatty as the conglomerate chieftain who sees the world as “a college of corporations”; Beatrice Straight as Max’s deeply caring wife; and Marlene Warfield as the Marxist whose manifesto soon includes syndication rights and overhead clauses. —Paddy Chayefsky Speaks Out by Susan Horowitz, The Saturday Review, November 13, 1976

Network is about how television is obsessed by ratings, isn’t it?
Television is an advertising medium. If you’ve got a good show, you raise the price of your advertising. The top shows are paid something like $130,000 a minute, as opposed to a news program, which might get a fraction of that. If they had their way, they’d throw out the news altogether and keep putting the ‘Bionic Woman’ on.

Do you see television moving in any particular direction?
Profit orientation entirely. Most people in charge of television today still retain a sense of responsibility. They try to balance some sort of noblesse oblige with the profit motive. What happens with the next generation—no longer Brahmans of television, just profit makers? That’s what Network is all about.

That people coming up have no conscience?
They’re no longer programming people, creative people with theatrical backgrounds. They come out of advertising, sales, managing local stations. They’re totally oriented towards profits, towards ratings, which is the same thing.

Are you speaking just about television here?
We [Chayefsky and his producer, Howard Gottfried] always do microcosm films—the whole society in one institution.

Like Hospital, your film with George Scott? Wasn’t that also about the depersonalization of an institution and also a satire?
They’re satires, but there’s not one unauthentic note in either Hospital or Network. The medical journals cited Hospital as being highly realistic.

What about style? In Network you seemed to be combining realism with parody and rhythmic, almost poetic dialogue. Is there any particular reason you do this?
I just get personal, professional pleasure out of mixing a complex of styles.

It seems to be an unusual form for film. Does it grow out of your experience in theater?
Probably. You have more technical license in the theater. You can even write in verse in the theater. Gideon was totally written in verse but squeezed into block paragraphs so that the actors wouldn’t be made self-conscious by it.

Will audiences accept poetry?
It’s tough. Contemporary drama is not a language drama. Poetry has to come from the conceptions, the visual imagery. Film is the hardest on language. You have to find some device. I use insane people a lot because it allows you to be extravagant in your language, and insanity is a very contemporary theme. It’s hard to find a form of diction for the movies that most of the audience will accept as entertainment and that another layer of audience will accept as poetry. You have to make it sound as if they’re talking realistically but with an articulate reality—characters who are capable of poetic reality.

Do you expect Network ever to be shown on television?
We cut our own television version. Otherwise, they’ll butcher it. Cut a whole scene to take out one dirty word.

So your attitude toward television is suspicious?
I’m not as benign as I used to be. I don’t have much hope, but it’s still there. Television remains a medium with limitless potential. It’s really beyond comprehension. —Paddy Chayefsky Speaks Out

“My biggest contribution is in explaining my humor to the actors,” says Chayefsky and proceeds to reenact wickedly funny sequences from The Hospital and Network, describing how he molded the actor’s delivery. “I often scare the hell out of actors,” he says. “I think I traumatized Peter Finch on Network.” In Network, Peter Finch stars as Howard Beale, a Murrowesque newsman dueling with a soul­less, conglomerate-brained television network. That script introduced a bat­tle cry that has subsequently become part of the culture: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” In one memorable scene, New Yorkers all over the city open their windows and shout that warning en masse. Social satire has never been a rarer commodity in American films than today, and Chayefsky’s Swiftian ferocity exhila­rates audiences. —Paddy Chayefsky: The Agonies of a Screenwriter by Robert F. Moss, The Saturday Review, May 1981



The screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky, who died in 1981, left behind many notes on his script for Network. Credit: The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. —Notes of a Screenwriter, Mad as Hell

Thirty-five years after the release of Network, the unpublished notes of the writer Paddy Chayefsky document the angst and animus that he channeled into the film’s Academy Award-winning screenplay. View some of these documents below and click on the highlighted areas for notes that provide a closer examination. —The Notes Behind ‘Network’

The shooting script for Network. Howard Beale’s “Mad as Hell” speech was filmed on Day 1.

Dave Itzkoff’s marvelous book Mad as Hell: The Making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies is a must-have on your shelf. Purchase your copy at Amazon.

Arguably the most penetrating examination of the communications industry ever produced, Sidney Lumet’s Network is a truly seminal work, so its selection to inaugurate the DGA’s Under the Influence series in New York was fitting indeed.

In one of his best interviews, Lumet discusses his directing style developed over 50 years of filmmaking including such noteworthy films as 12 Angry Men, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Dog Day Afternoon and Network.

“The cinematography concept of Network was wonderful and Owen Roizman carried it brilliantly. Since it was a film about corruption, we would corrupt the camera. There was a realistic look with William Holden and Peter Finch in the beginning, by the end of the movie it looked like a Ford commercial. It was so gorgeous, it looked like A Man and a Woman, we just gradually made the film look gorgeous. I never liked to see any of this happening. My objection to a lot of work is the stuff that draws attention to itself. I like to sit back and let it hit me. A lot of what I see that I don’t like is the stuff that draws attention to itself. In Network we stretched it over 2 hours so you never see it happening. The original ad for Network was one of the best ads I’ve ever seen. Manhattan skyline with TV cameras with Peter Finch on a cross. The copy said ‘The greatest story ever sold.’ Great ad. Arthur Krim put up money. By the time picture came out all that was left was the lightning bolt. Literally. Just the lightning bolt.” —Sidney Lumet

Sidney Lumet spoke of his transition to a feature film director with 12 Angry Men in 1957 and his work on such other feature films as the Paddy Chayefsky’s satire, Network. The interview was conducted by Dr. Ralph Engleman on October 28, 1999.

Sidney Lumet discusses his work on the film Network, commenting on the character’s storyline and the narrative of the film.

Nelson Carvajal’s video essay, TV Takeover, is nothing but brilliant from start to finish.

“Today, we look at Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet’s 1976 diatribe of the television industry, Network. The cast won a multitude of awards including the Oscar for Best Actress won by Faye Dunaway and the Oscar for Best Actor won by Peter Finch—who won over another nominee for the same film: William Holden. Beatrice Straight won Best Supporting Actress for only five minutes and two seconds of screen time—the shortest performance to win an Oscar. And Ned Beatty was nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for pretty much one scene. So, what was Lumet doing to elicit such brilliant motion picture acting?” —CinemaTyler

This video essay was written, edited, and narrated by Tyler Knudsen.

Sidney Lumet (June 25, 1924–April 9, 2011) shares his book, Making Movies, about the technique and job of filmmaking.

Here are some great photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Sidney Lumet’s Network. Production still photographers: Michael Ginsburg & Mary Ellen Mark © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (A Howard Gottfried-Paddy Chayefsky Production), United Artists. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

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